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Broken fineal fuses friendship between Petra Kaiser and Michele Gutlove

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The phone rang as glass artist Petra Kaiser was tinkering in her studio early Saturday evening a couple of weeks ago. Lucas Century's voice came over the line. An artist he'd lost a commission to over at FGCU had broken a key component in the hanging fused glass sculpture she was installing in Marieb Hall and needed access to a kiln. "Would you mind if I have her call you?" Century asked hopefully.

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During the past 35 years, Century has explored and developed pioneering techniques that allow him to etch text and images onto glass with unparalleled clarity and depth, but since he doesn't work in the medium of fused or warm glass, he doesn't have a kiln. But he knew that Kaiser does.

"Sure," Petra answered without hesitation. "Have her call me."

Kaiser hadn't heard anything about Natick, Massachusetts glass sculptor Michele Gutlove or her FGCU pulic art project, Verve. "The first time I heard about the project was when Lucas called," Petra recounts. But that didn't matter. An internationally-renowned artist and instructor in the art of kiln formed glass, Kaiser knows all too well how easy it is to break a piece of fused glass and she was only too happy to help a fellow artist in need. So when Gutlove called minutes later, Petra assured her that her studio had everything Michele needed to repair or replace the broken piece.

Thirty minutes later (the commute from FGCU normally takes 40), Gutlove and her entourage arrived. Petra showed the slightly-flummoxed Gutlove to her studio, perched in the second story above her garage.

"We broke a fineal," Gutlove told her breathlessly, revealing a yellow-orange piece of ornamental glass that had fractured right down the middle. "My husband broke it as he was snipping the steel cable that attaches the entire nucleus to the truss," Michele explained. "I made spares for the other hanging pieces, but not the fineals. They're so small, I never figured any of them would break."

Gutlove's commission, Verve, is comprised of more than 400 pieces of fused glass that are suspended by stainless steel cables from a truss that Gutlove and her team installed on the underside of the Marieb Hall ceiling, two stories above the atrium lobby floor. Taken together, the sculptural glass represents the nuclei and dendrites of three neurons. Neurons are essentially the brain's messengers, relaying messages electrically throughout the human brain and spinal chord. Many intricate trees of highly branched extensions called dendrites extend from the surface of each cell body. They serve as receptors to collect signals from other neurons.

"The artwork not only represents the connections that occur within the human brain, it illuminates the university's mission by celebrating and inspiring connections students are making with each other and with their own potential," states Gutlove. It is an appropriate addition to a building whose focus not only relates to medical health, but social work as well.

The fineal was the end piece of the last of the three nuclei. If she couldn't fix it in Kaiser's studio, Gutlove knew she'd have to cast a new piece when she returned to Massachusetts, hop a plane back to Fort Myers and hire another scissor lift to put the piece in place. The additional expense would be a killer, but not finishing the work in time for the start of classes on January 5 was the part that Gutlove couldn't tolerate. She was not about to glue the pieces together and risk having the someone get hurt if the bond failed and the pieces fell to the floor. What she really needed was a fresh piece of glass from which to cast a brand new fineal. But what were the chances that Kaiser would have the type, color and thickness she needed?

Kaiser has hundreds of pieces of fusing glass. Sculptors scrounge, scrounge, scrounge and never throw anything away. "I think I have what you're looking for over here," Petra said, rummaging through some inventory. In less than two minutes, she pulled out exactly what Gutlove needed. Luck? Serendipity? Or just plain kismet? Michele leaped at the glass.

But Petra did more than just offer Gutlove a piece of fusing glass. She opened her entire studio to Michele. And not just for an hour or two. In order to fuse, drape and complete the new fineal, Michele would have to put the glass into the kiln in three successive firings that night and the next day. It was tantamount to having an unexpected overnight guest.

"We all agreed it was a great opportunity to meet," says Petra. "And I got to see some beautiful work." Kaiser drove over to FGCU that Monday to see the completed work - and watch the reaction of faculty and students as they returned from Christmas break to find a stunning new artwork adorning the atrium of the health sciences building.

The compliment is especially meaningful coming from Kaiser. She's been working in fused glass since 1997. But over the ensuing 15 years, Petra has done more than merely develope a distinctive style (which captures the Florida sun, light and water in sculptures, functional glassware and wearable designs). She has forged innovative techniques that have vaulted her to the forefront in her chosen medium. And she doesn't just share those breakthroughs with the students who take her classes and workshops. Petra has published three books on her fused glass techniques and methodology, as well as numerous articles in various international glass magazines.

"I never heard of Kaiser Lee Board, but I can't wait to try it out in my next project," Gutlove remarked as she put the finishing touches on Verve after putting the new fineal in place the following night. Kaiser Lee Board is a molding medium Petra and her husband, Wolfgang, "found." Because it can be easily carved and fired at full fuse temperatures countless times, it uniquely enables warm glass artists like Petra and Michele to create any shape or design they want in their sculptural glass pieces or components.

"In the end, we thanked Michele's husband for breaking the fineal," Petra chuckles. The two are now fast friends.

Even before it was completed, Verve was apparently at work inspiring connections and helping those who come in contact with it to tap into their creativity and reach their full potential.

Verve is part of the Florida Art in Public Buildings program, an initiative started in 1979 pursuant to section 255.043 of the Florida Statutes, which earmarks 0ne-half of one percent of the amount the legislature appropriates for the construction of state buildings for the acquisition of public artworks.

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